Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Population

SRI LANKA: Gov&#39t in Serious Image Crisis

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Jun 11 2007 (IPS) - "Somewhere in the jungles of Vanni (northern Sri Lanka), Velupillai Prabhakaran (Tamil Tiger rebel leader) is rubbing his hands in glee. The actions of the Sri Lankan government during the last week, however quickly reversed, best served his interests, and his alone," &#39The Nation&#39 commented in its Sunday editorial.

The reference, by the respected English language weekly published from Colombo, was to the government&#39s sudden move, on Jun. 7, to identify and evict hundreds of ethnic Tamils staying in the capital&#39s many lodges (budget hotels) and bus them to rebel-held northern Jaffna where they had their homes.

A Supreme Court stay order compelled police to bring the evictees back the next day and the government to offer an apology and compensation.

Suwarnalingam (name changed) was all set to take his ailing 57-year-old wife to India for medical treatment when police knocked on the doors of his lodge in the wee hours of Jun. 7 and asked him to get back to his home in Jaffna. The serious medical condition of his wife was not good enough reason to be allowed to stay on. "We were to get Indian visas the day we were evicted, and although we showed them (police) a letter from a doctor, they made us turn back," he told IPS.

Suwarnalingam and his wife were among the 376 individuals who were bussed 256 km to the northern town of Vavuniya on Jun. 7. They stayed the night at Gamini Vidayalaya, a government school in Vavuniya where, according to the evictees, sanitation facilities were dismal.

The Suvarnalingams were waiting to move on to Jaffna when the apex court stayed the evictions on a petition filed by the Colombo-based think tank the Centre for Policy Alternatives. Thus, the afternoon of Jun. 8 saw them back on the long and arduous road to Colombo.

Tales of sheer helplessness were common. Rasamma was in Colombo waiting to go to India to get married when she and her 70-year-old father were asked by the police to return home. And now she is back in Colombo after spending 17 hours on the road back from Vavuniya and stopping at several police stations along the way to make tiresome explanations.

At the last police station in Wellawatte, just south of Colombo, the returnees were made to go through a registration process that took another three hours. "We were herded into buses like cattle and even when we were told we could go back to Colombo, we were warned to finish our work there and go back to our hometowns, and not stay on in Colombo," said 19-year-old Ramalingam from Jaffna.

Human rights activists, who were present at the police station when the returnees arrived, said the authorities were courteous. "The police was cooperative, even if the registrations took a tediously long time," Rukshan Fernando from the Law and Society Trust told IPS.

For their part the Tigers said the eviction programme proved the double standards of the Sri Lankan government led by President Mahinda Rajapakse. "This latest act of ethnic cleansing was committed amidst calls from the international community to improve the human rights situation. It was committed in Colombo while the Japanese peace envoy, Yasushi Akashi, is in Colombo discussing with all sides the human rights situation in the island. It therefore should demonstrate to the international community the Sri Lankan government&#39s true stance on the issue of the human rights of Tamils," Tiger human rights spokeswoman Selvi Navaruban said in a statement.

In fact, the timing of the eviction attempt could not have been worse considering the government was already under international criticism for the mysterious abduction and murder of two volunteers from the Sri Lanka Red Cross.

Late May, a group of 14 bilateral aid donors, including the United States, the European Union, Japan and the United Nations had appealed to the government to increase security for staff of agencies delivering humanitarian aid to people affected by fighting between government troops and the Tamil Tiger rebels in the north and east.

President Rajapakse, who is due to address the International Labour Organisation in Geneva this week, made some motions towards damage control. ‘&#39Allegations that officials exceeded their authority in implementing this initiative will be thoroughly investigated and appropriate remedial action will be taken, including disciplinary action against any wrongdoing on the part of any government official," his office said.

"It was a big mistake," admitted Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. "I express regret and apologise to the Tamil community on behalf of the governmentàwe want to tell the Tamil people that everyone has a right to live anywhere,&#39&#39 he said speaking to reporters on Sunday.

But the government is in for further embarrassment. An international panel appointed to investigate military abuses, including the massacre of 17 aid workers in August 2006, in a report released Monday, said there has been ‘&#39hardly any noticeable progress&#39&#39 made by the commission appointed by Rajapakse.

"We remain concerned the current measures taken by the government of Sri Lanka and the commission to address issues such as the independence of the commission, timeliness and witness protection are not adequate and do not satisfy international norms and standards," the 11-member panel, called the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), said in statement.

The panel, headed P.N. Bhagwati, a retired Indian chief justice, expressed concerns over impartiality, lack of transparency and conflict of interest arising from the fact that the attorney general&#39s department was acting as legal counsel for the commission, appointed by Rajapkse, as outrage grew over the massacre of the aid workers, local staff of Action Contre La Faim (Action Against Hunger).

According to the panel, little was being done to protect witnesses. This at a time when abductions and disappearances were occurring frequently in a spiral of violence that marks a new phase in the two-decade-old ethnic war on the island that has recorded 70,000 deaths since a 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom in Colombo.

The IIGEP has called for international monitoring of the situation in Sri Lanka. ‘&#39In the current context, in particular, the apparent renewed systematic practice of enforced disappearance and the killings of Red Cross workers, it is critical that the Commission and IIGEP not be portrayed as a substitute for robust, effective measures including national and international human rights monitoring," the panel said in its report.

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