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Cluster bombs, concentration camps, attacks on civilians and media … Sri Lanka’s lies

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Sri Lanka’s war on the Tamil people has reached an extremely brutal level. Many neutral observers and human rights activists have called it ‘genocide’. While brutal attacks against Tamils have reached a new height, lies spread by the government have also reached a new height. For example, Sri Lanka has been lying on the use of cluster bombs, concentration camps, and attack on food supplies, civilians, and media. The catalogue of lies and disinformation churned out by plethora of ministers and spokespersons of Sri Lanka reminds us the propaganda unleashed by the Dr Joseph Goebbels under the Hitler’s Third Reich.  Sri Lanka has been emboldened to churn out lies after lies because it has thrown out all international media and aid organisations from the war zone and imposed censorship on domestic media through draconian laws and brutal violence. Even ICRC does not have full access to this area. Despite this news blackout, one after the other Sri Lanka’s lies are being exposed everyday.
 
Since October 2008 there have been reports about the indiscriminate use of cluster bombs and artillery shells by Sri Lankan forces on Tamil population. These are banned weapons under the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) which was signed by 92 countries in Oslo in December 2008.   Sri Lankan ministers and officials have repeatedly denied using cluster munitions despite graphic evidence from the war zone. They claimed that Sri Lanka does not even have cluster munitions and technology. This lie was exposed by Pakistan which supplied these munitions to Sri Lanka. In an interview to the Dawn newspaper in July 2008, Major General Mohammad Farooq, Director General of the Defence Export Promotion Organization, while boasting about Pakistan's defence exports spilled the beans that Sri Lanka has purchased cluster bombs, deep penetration bombs and rockets and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) from Pakistan. As early as May 2006 the Indian Express reported that Sri Lanka has placed orders with Pakistan for cluster bombs, deep penetration bombs and rockets and UAVs. At the time no one took the report seriously, maybe except the LTTE.
 
Sri Lanka claims that Tamil civilians who crossed over to government areas from the LTTE controlled areas are sent to ‘welfare villages’. In reality these are nothing but concentration camps. They are surrounded by thick rolls of barbed/razor wire and manned by the army. The inmates are denied free movement outside camps and are not allowed to meet relatives. The fact that these are really concentration camps are not lost on international agencies and media.   For example, after seeing the plight of the so called ‘liberated’ Tamils in the East, this is what Sreeram Chaulia from the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse, New York, commented (Online Asia Times, 11 September 2008): “With the objective of luring Tamil civilians into "cleared areas" (territory retaken from LTTE control by the state), the government is setting up reception centres in Vavuniya district. These camps are strictly policed and offer very limited freedom of mobility for inmates. Since civilian escapees from Wanni are all suspected of loyalties to the LTTE, the camps are subject to screening and "weeding out" operations by security forces. One informed international aid official likened them to Nazi concentration camps.” Again, in her testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee (February 2009), Dr Anna Neistat from Human Rights Watch described these camps as ‘defacto internment camps’. She observed: “The perimeters of the sites are secured with coils of barbed wire, sand bags, and machine-gun nests. There is a large military presence inside and around the camps...Upon arrival in Vavuniya, all displaced persons, without exception, are subjected to indefinite confinement in defacto internment camps, which the government calls transit sites, “welfare centres”, or “welfare villages”.”
 
Recently, some media and embassy officials were taken on a conducted tour to one or two selected camps which are considered the best ones to demonstrate how nicely the helpless Tamils are looked after by the government.  In one just tour, Amos Roberts, reporter for ‘Dateline’, a programme of Australia's Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), could see how terribly frightened these people are to open their mouth to the visiting reporters and he also observed how the camp was filled with soldiers everywhere. A representative of Medicine san Frontiers advised him not to talk to the inmates as that could spell disaster to these helpless people.  When Amos Roberts sought permission to visit and interview the wounded Tamil civilians who have been evacuated by ICRC from the war zone to Trincomalee, Major General Palita Fernando, the military commander in Trincomalee refused permission and when asked why not, he replied: "that's the way we want it, simple answer." It is obvious, if allowed to interview wounded civilians, they would tell the truth that the government has been attacking civilians with cluster bombs and munitions and thousands were killed.
 
Sri Lanka has presented a plan seeking international funds to create a number of these ‘welfare villages’ (concentration camps) to detain displaced people for at least three years. When objected by international agencies including the UN, the government started saying that Tamils will be sent to their homes within a short period. This is another lie that is proved by the experience of the people in the East and Jaffna. Thousands of people in the East are still languishing in internment camps more than one year after their so called ‘liberation’.  There are over 93,000 permanently displaced persons (for over 19 years) from Jaffna district where their homes were taken over by the army to form High Security Zones (HSZ).  This shows that the government has no intention of sending people back to their own villages.
 
Often Sri Lanka used embargo on food and medicine to bring Tamils to their knees. During the ceasefire period it closed A9 Highway to Jaffna and stopped food supplies. It followed same strategy and also used artillery shelling and aerial bombings to drive Tamils out of their villages in the East. In September 2008 the government ordered all aid organisations to leave LTTE controlled areas and stopped supplies of food and medicine to over 350, 000 Tamils.  Recently, the government allowed ICRC to carry just a tiny fraction of the supplies needed by a ship to the conflict area. The army fired artillery shells on the ship while it was unloading and blamed it on LTTE. This is a devious ploy to cancel even this tiny volume of food supply. This cheap lie is again exposed by the ICRC. In a statement to BBC (9 March 2009), Carla Haddad, Deputy Head of communications of ICRC, Geneva said: "We have no reason to believe the ship flying the ICRC flag was targeted by shells which were falling around it while trying to unload supplies."
 
A number of journalists, particularly Tamils, have been killed by Sri Lankan government forces and its paramilitaries. Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of Sunday Leader, was killed in broad daylight. His obituary (published as editorial) written by himself anticipating such event clearly accused the government for his death. Recently, Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, the editor of two Tamil news papers - Uthayan and Sudar Oli - was at first abducted by the notorious White Van in broad day light (very few returned alive after being abducted). But the government was forced to declare that he was arrested due to international pressure.  Yet, Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the US, had the audacity to argue that the "attacks on journalists may have been perpetrated by "terrorists" seeking to embarrass the government."
 
Again Sri Lanka has been deliberately and repeatedly lying about the number of Tamil civilians in the war zone. It insists that there are only 70,000 people in the war zone while the ICRC and UN aid agencies have been saying that there are between 200,000 and 250, 000 people in the war zone. It seems that by repeating same lies hundreds of times, Sri Lanka wants to make the international community to believe them as facts and truths. To some extent, it appears to have succeeded in marketing its lies and deceptions.  But now increasingly the international media has started asking probing questions. For example, the international community has willingly accepted Sri Lanka’s absolute lie that it is always ready to find a political solution but the LTTE has been intransigent. They never asked Sri Lanka: ‘what is your peace proposal or political solution?’ In his recent article in The Guardian (17th December 2008), Jonathan Steele nailed this lie and observed: “Ironically, the only constructive proposals made since the crisis started came from the LTTE in 2003. Their suggested Internal Self-Governing Authority is over-ambitious but it has never been matched by a detailed blueprint from the government side. Until the government comes up with a realistic offer, which will have to involve elements of a federation, there will be no cause for celebration and no chance of compromise and peace.” Is this the beginning of the end for the Goebbels of Sri Lanka? Let us hope so.
Dr Angathevar Baskaran is Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the Middlesex University Business School, London