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Living Horror

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With each passing day, more reports of atrocities emerge from Sri Lanka's concentration camps where three hundred thousand Tamil people are detained by the Sinhala government. Young men and women are 'disappearing' every day, while bodies are found with throats cut and villagers report fresh mass graves in other parts of Vavuniya, the garrison town near which the military-run, barbed-wire ringed camps are located. Amid increasing reports of rapes, a prostitution ring run by government officials has been identified in at least one of the camps. Even as the people - the entire population of the Vanni - were herded into the camps in from March, thousands came bearing grievous injuries sustained during the indiscriminate bombardment by the military which killed 20,000 Tamil civilians this year. They have largely been denied sufficient food and medical assistance. Disease has swept through the camps in recent weeks while malnourishment is widely reported. Sri Lanka's genocide of the Tamils is proceeding steadily.


With customary contempt for international humanitarian and human rights norms, the Sri Lankan state has rejected all criticism of its 'welfare camps' and instead blamed the international community for the suffering of the Tamils. That the Tamil detainees are starving is the fault of the United Nations agencies'. So, apparently, is the revolting sanitary conditions that inevitably came about when hundreds of thousands were crammed into the tented camps. Colombo's contempt for international norms was underlined when President Mahinda Rajapakse this week mockingly boasted that his camps "are the best in the world."


An increasing number of international observers and scholars have begun taking a close look at ongoing events in Sri Lanka. Former skeptics are increasingly agreed that something is seriously wrong in Sri Lanka. As Prof. Martin Shaw, an expert on genocide, puts it, "the continuing concentration of over 250,000 people in the camps … itself constitutes a most serious crime." Human Rights Watch has condemned the "illegal detention of 300,000 Tamils" as a "national disgrace."


None of this international criticism is going to make an iota of difference to Colombo. The Rajapske regime is enjoying the highest popularity of any Sinhala government. It is whipping up a wave of Sinhala chauvinism that had been simmering under former governments but is now rampant. The defeat of the Liberation Tigers' conventional strength in May, despite the horrific - and still hidden - casualties suffered by the Sinhala military, has triggered undisguised triumphalism and daily acts of racism.


More importantly, the Rajapakse government has set about transforming Sri Lanka from the market democracy that - on the surface, at least - was engaging with Western notions of good governance, free markets, ethnic equality and other liberal concepts, into an archaic model of Sinhala governance straight from the pages of the Mahavamsa mytho-narrative. President Rajapakse has encouraged comparisons between him and the Sinhala king Dutugemunu in these chronicles. Whilst people in other countries may snicker at such conduct, the implications for the island's future of this re-enactment of a mythical past could not be more serious. For the Tamils, they are genocidal. It is worth remembering that in the Mahavamsa, the Sinhalese’ enemies are the 'Damils' - sub-humans.


The point here is that Sri Lanka's actions towards the Tamils are not merely the result of weak state capacity, indifference, corruption or the peculiarities of a particular Sinhala leadership, but the consequences of the pursuit - the 'making real' - of a particular ordering of ethnic value inherent to Sinhala mytho-narrative. Amidst a logic that places the Sinhala - the 'rightful' inheritors of the island - at the top of a hierarchy of ethnicities, no amount of 'engagement', 'capacity-building' or otherwise cajoling the Sinhala state is going to produce any change in its conduct. If the international community is going to stand by its humanitarian and human rights norms, then it is going to have to confront the Sinhala state head on. The Tamil Diaspora, settled mainly in the liberal democracies of the West, must continue to engage with these states and the associated international organizations and agencies. Whilst the Sri Lankan state can murder, threaten and block access to Tamil voices in the island, it cannot silence their fellow Tamils overseas. In the coming months and years, the Sinhalese will make it clear why 'reconciliation' is impossible in Sri Lanka. But in the interim, the Diaspora must ensure that the West-led international community makes good on its claim to defend human rights and other liberal values.

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