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Genocide, the world and us: lessons from Jaffna.

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“Genocide is a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”

So said Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish academic, who first coined the term ‘genocide’ in the context of the Holocaust.

The ‘paradise’ island nation of Sri Lanka, is currently South Asia’s wealthiest country on a per capita income basis. Its economy has grown by over 6% in each of the last three years; foreign investment and tourism have boomed despite the civil war.

An international truce monitor examines the bodies of two youth abducted in the Sri Lanka Army-controlled area. Photo TamilNet

And yet over the last year hundreds of thousands of people, mainly Tamils, not only faced starvation but have suffered shellings and bombings, abductions and killings, torture and rape.

Jaffna is emblematic of the deprivations faced by the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The foundations life in this northern peninsula have been systematically destroyed to genocidal proportions. For the simple reason that the Tamils an ethnic minority in the Sinhala state of Sri Lanka.

Jaffna has a written history that is over 2000 years old; once a strategic port on the ancient silk route, it has been for millennia the cultural and political capital of the Tamil people of the island.

Jaffna’s present woes stem from its pre-eminent historic position as the Tamil cultural capital. And its history of political independence.

In 1983, when the country wide, anti Tamil pogroms erupted in Sri Lanka, Tamils in the south sought safe haven in Jaffna. Later that decade it became the political centre of the movement for Tamil independence.

Jaffna, the cultural and, then, the political capital of the Tamils, was also the home and core support base of the largest Tamil political parties since independence, all of whom as their names so clearly suggest, aspired to autonomy for the Tamil homelands in Sri Lanka: the Federal party which later merged into the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).

In the late eighties, when the government of Sri Lanka entered into an accord with neighbouring India to contain the rebellious Tamils, the Indians recognised the importance of Jaffna. It was flooded with troops by the Indian peace keeping force (IPKF) in what later deteriorated into a well-chronicled brutal and hostile military occupation.

But the Indians were forced to withdraw within two years and Jaffna fell to the control of the the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

In the early nineties Jaffna had hope: it saw five years of uninterrupted governance by the LTTE, who though not elected, were undeniably a home grown leadership, a political and cultural product of the city itself. Few dispute that Jaffna was well-governed. The Times of London, for example, berated the LTTE for their “fanatical” commitment to the separatist cause but also described them as “fanatically” committed to law and order, squeaky clean, efficient and innovative. The fabric of life had a foundation of stability on which reconstruction could begin.

But genocide returned to Jaffna in the guise of a “war for peace”.

When the next president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunge, the daughter of two former nationalist prime ministers, was elected on a platform of a “ final war for peace” against the Tamil fighters, the western political establishment was keen to give her a chance.

Leading western newspapers, including the editorial of the Times of London reported the all out onslaught of the invasion of the Jaffna peninsula as a “war of liberation”. A broad front military invasion is the most destructive of civilian lives and property, as artillery and aerial bombardment supports an all out battle to capture the target town.

It is difficult to find a parallel for these tactics by a government against its “own population” in any other part of the world – for ironically the peninsula of Jaffna still was formally part of Sri Lanka and the people of Jaffna still entitled to the protection of “their” government.

There were previous incidents that met the legal definitions but one may argue that these were not sufficiently concerted.

The 1981 burning of the Jaffna Library and its entire collection, including historic handwritten manuscripts, was also an act of genocidal intent: a deliberate act by the state, no less, that aimed to destroy the history and cultural identity of a city which prided itself on both its millennia old history and its possession of the second largest library in all of Asia.

The decades long economic embargo of essential items to Jaffna throughout the 90s come close to aving as its objective “inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the physical destruction of a people”, part of the UN definition. For minimally if the embargo did not prevent births (also part of the UN definition), it also ensured that the children of Jaffna were chronically malnourished and physically undeveloped.

But these stretched foundations of life crumbled in 1995 with the “war for peace”. For almost all of the 500,000 inhabitants of Jaffna evacuated before the oncoming government soldiers reached them, one of the least documented, but largest movement of civilians peoples since the world war. The “exodus” of Jaffna is chronicled in the book of the same name, by the then chairman of Sri Lanka’s state television network, Vasantha Raja, who resigned and emigrated in protest.

According to the Swiss academic Julia Fribourg, the term ‘genocide’ includes the deliberate displacement of national groups from their homelands with an aim of destroying their cultural and habitational grounds.

But if the Sri Lankan state in 1995 achieved the single largest displacement of an ethnic population in the post war world, it went to great trouble to maintain its bona fides internationally and so to avoid the label of genocide.

The government, once its army had occupied the ghost city, invited its citizens back with the promise of protection. For an empty city was worthless in symbolic terms.

Suffering in the harsh openness of the Vanni region, half of the former population accepted the governments offer of return over the next few years. The rest followed the LTTE deeper into the Vanni and established from the jungle new habitats. Others made their way to Colombo and emigrated.

Those who returned accepted military rule as the price of returning home. They would have been aware of the government’s military presence, of emergency law and judged it bearable. Thus the current conditions of Jaffna cannot be blamed on the un-governability or political extremism of its population.

And yet the current conditions in Jaffna are undeniably genocidal. For no reasonable person could claim that they provide the “essential foundations of life”.

A Tamil woman cursing the passing Sri  Lankan forces.

Today Jaffna is merely an open prison, possibly the world’s largest. Never reconstructed from the destruction of the 1995 war, let alone the recent tsunami, it is a derelict and bombed out police city.

The ratio of soldiers of the army of occupation to civilians is higher that in a prison facility: every family is held hostage by one soldier. Then there is the navy, the militarised police and paramilitaries allied to the government.

Any form of social activity with possible political implications – including for example, meeting with visiting community leaders or multi faith religious delegations from Colombo – is photographed and recorded, the participants can expect visits from the state security forces.

Extensive records have been made over the last twelve years of participation in community or political activities. And almost all those who have shown some initiative – participants in local festivals, heroes day celebrations, journalists, student leaders, cooperative store workers who handout food rations, actors or actresses, aid workers, in fact any one who has participated in group activities for the benefit of the community – is a target for extra judicial arrest and disappearances.

To use a public phone one must provide not only ones own identification and address but also the details of the person one is calling, all of which will be recorded by the police state. Mobile phones do not work.

It is impossible to cross roads for up to three hours if an army convoy, filled with heavily armed Sinhala soldiers, is to pass. Ambulances are no exception.

Civilians are arbitrarily assaulted at army checkpoints. They can be arbitrarily subjected to intimate searches. People disappear routinely within a short time frame of having been through an army checkpoint.

Colombia, the kidnap capital of the world averages 700 kidnappings a year. Jaffna with its population of less than 450,000, with its extensive government military presence averages 6 a day. For in Jaffna it is the state which is accused for abducting, torturing and forever disappearing its citizens.

Earning a living has become impossible. Despite the shortage of food due to the embargo, fishermen are forbidden from fishing. When they are given permission of a few hours a day, they may not use their boats but must use their nets from the shore.

In Jaffna, where there is no media left, the entire family of six of a roadside boutique owner was shot for not providing free services to the Sinhala army.

It is increasingly harder to escape from Jaffna. Last year the borders to the Vanni were closed. Sea travel has been suspended.

But Jaffna has been under the control of the government of Sri Lanka for the last twelve years.

If there was ever an opportunity to undo “the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of a national group” then it would have unquestionably the period of the ceasefire: 22nd February 2002 to the 16th of January 2008.

It was a condition of the Cceasefire Agreement that Jaffna and other military occupied Tamil areas be demilitarised: that the soldiers be restricted to barracks, that civilians be able to return to a “normal” life.

It is ironic that the LTTE had to negotiate this “demilitarisation” on behalf of the people of Jaffna. For the conditions imposed on the people of Jaffna, so clearly calculated to “create bodily and emotional harm on an entire population”, are a violation of UN law on genocide.

But the trigger-happy Sinhala soldiers are everywhere: at temple festivals, exam centres, even at centres for psychological counselling for women traumatised by war.

Such is the symbolic significance of Jaffna to the Tamils, that the Sri Lankan state in 1995, believed whoever controlled Jaffna could claim sovereignty over the Tamil people. The international community agreed and largely endorsed the 1995 “Liberation” of Jaffna.

Jaffna, under the control of the Sri Lankan military throughout the entire period of the ceasefire and for many years prior, must be considered a showcase of the Sri Lankan government’s vision for the Tamil people once they are “liberated” from the LTTE. For Jaffna has been liberated for over twelve years.

More accurately, Jaffna must be considered the show-case of both the vision and implementation skills of the co-chairs of the peace process – the US, the UK, Japan, the European Union – who are also military and economic allies of the repulsive Sri Lankan State.

Many Tamil Diaspora members have family roots in Jaffna and consequently legitimate interests in the fate of this historic city and its province. The question for us when we engage with the international political and human rights machinery – be it the local member of parliament, the foreign office or the Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International – must be: what is your record of implementation in “liberated” Jaffna? Any promises being made for the “liberated” East must be measured against the actual progress achieved in long “liberated” Jaffna.

While it ought to be the responsibility of all the governments who engage in military and economic aid to the Sri Lankan state to ensure that their military and economic ally is not committing genocide, the co-chairs though long on words have achieved zero in implementation.

By their repeated refusal to impose sanctions on the Sri Lankan state, by their insistence in “constructive engagement” with the already prosperous south while aiding the military machine that daily throttles Jaffna, the United States, the European Union – especially, Britain - are indirect participants in the Sri Lankan state’s genocide.

It is important that questions be asked now about the record of the international political establishment that has unashamedly aided and abetted the inflicting of such suffering on the people of Jaffna and the rest of the Northeast

At the very least we need to disillusion both ourselves, and all people of goodwill everywhere, about the combined will and the ability of the international community to “prevent the destruction of the foundations of life” of the Tamil people in the ‘paradise’ island.