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Sri Lanka: Quarter of a million civilians trapped in war zone

Faced with starvation and death, between 250,000 and 400,000 civilians are trapped in a small area in the north of Sri Lanka. They have been in a nightmare situation since early January, when the Sri Lankan military moved into Kilinochchi – the headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE have been fighting for a separate homeland for over 30 years.

Recently the LTTE have suffered a massive military setback in the face of the Sri Lankan government’s military offensive. Before the military moved into Kilinochchi and into Mullaithivu town, the LTTE had evacuated the Tamil population to the areas where they maintain control. The LTTE now only controls small parts of Mullaithivu, a northern district surrounded by the Sri Lankan military. There are no housing or food facilities in this area. Relief agencies and the media are banned from the war zone by the government.

Last week the Sri Lankan government announced a very small safety zone near Mullaithivu. Some relief agencies and media personnel are allowed into this safety zone but only under military escort. This safety zone, however, does not have sufficient shelter, medicine and food to accommodate the hundreds of thousands trapped in this hell.

Mullaithivu is one of the poorest regions in the country. As part of the war on the LTTE, this area has been suffering under a government blockade for months. In the last two weeks this situation has worsened. There have been no reports of food supplies to these people. Thousands are believed to be starving to death, including thousands of children.

This situation is described by the relief agencies as a “silent tsunami”. Not only are the fleeing people’s conditions worsening and levels of starvation at breaking point, but they are also under fire from the Sri Lankan military. Even in the safety zone there are reports of heavy shelling. There are various reports of hundreds and even thousands of deaths, but, due to the government’s information blackout, it is impossible to know how many have died.

Humanitarian crisis
The government has made no attempt whatsoever to protect the trapped people. Many may not even be aware of the safety zone, but it serves as a propaganda point for the government. Meanwhile, disgusting patriotic rhetoric and a ruthless and racist attitude is displayed by Rajapakse, the current president, and his ruling family and friends. Much of this goes unchallenged. Journalists and other media personnel under the constant threat of physical attacks by government-sponsored thugs. With the brutal murder of Lasantha Wickmeratunge, one of the country’s most respected journalists, the government intended to send a message that all who seek to speak out about government corruption or to tell the truth about the government’s persecution and military assaults will face repression or even death. Even Sri Lanka’s German ambassador was called before the government and criticised after speaking against the media suppression at Lasantha’s funeral. Since Lasantha’s death another editor has been stabbed and numerous other attacks on media personnel have taken place.

As the appalling humanitarian crisis unfolds in the north of Sri Lanka, the government leaders are sponsoring celebrations in the south. The media have been urged to produce patriotic articles and reports.

The LTTE did not comply with the request to move the civilians to the safety zone. Having evacuated the population to territory under their control, the LTTE have shown no intention of letting anyone get away. This marks a change to previous conflicts when people have been able to move into areas controlled by the government army as they advanced. This time no one was allowed to escape. The LTTE has not made any attempt to create a safety zone in the area they control. Instead they are moving people further back into areas where there are no facilities – water, food, medicine or shelter. There are no hospitals in these areas. There are no facilities to treat the injured. There are no services to deal with the growing numbers of dead bodies and there are reports of corpses lying in the fields for days. These horrors go beyond those seen in all the years of war in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government believes it can achieve victory over the LTTE before 4 February, when they are planning massive ‘Freedom Day’ independence celebrations. The United Socialist Party (USP), the Sri Lankan section of the Committee for a Workers’ International, has helped to create a broad opposition called the ‘Freedom Platform’ which is organising a major protest on the same day. It is also calling for solidarity protests internationally on 4 February. Its main slogans are: Freedom to live. Freedom of expression – in the media and in politics. No to war. No to killings and kidnappings.

Despite the government’s attempts to silence any kind of opposition to its war drive and racist chauvinism, the USP is continuing its campaigning against the government. not only against the offensive on the population in the north and the suppression of free speech and democratic rights in the south. It urges a united struggle of Sinhala and Tamil workers and poor throughout the island to get rid of the rotten regime of Rajapakse. It stands firmly for the right of Tamil-speaking people to self-determination and for a socialist alternative to capitalism and imperialism.

Senan, CWI

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