Tuesday, October 16, 2007

And the War Rages On

It is very easy in my cozy little hamlet to forget that Sri Lanka is currently in a civil war that has been raging for more than 20 years. Very easy due in part because I work with a nice cross section of society -- heck, downstairs there is a Hindu Swami and a Buddhist Monk working on the same project and seemingly good friends.

Today I came into work and Harshana was at his desk. He was supposed to go to Arugambay with Chairman, a last minute trip to show the boss the project. Harshana said they didn't go because "the situation is bad" -- there was fighting in Yala.

First, the fighting has been in the east, it has been confined to the north. So this is a very, very bad sign that the worst is absolutely not behind us. Second, Yala is a National Park, not a war zone and it greatly disturbs me that this is the scene for the start of the eastern war. This park is vital to the soil quality of the region -- if they start cutting trees down for the war (as they did in the north) they will destroy the farmland surrounding the park -- farmland that produces 40 percent of the rice grown in Sri Lanka. This would be devastating not just for these farmers, but for the country as a whole because we all rely on that rice. Rice is what people eat and without it, many, many will starve.

Also intensely disturbing is that this fighting is so close to so many communities that were living peacefully in their multi-ethnic utopias. All the towns I visited in the east (granted, not that many) were proud that they had Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims residing there. [Side note: I hate that they include Muslims as a separate group when discussing the ethnic breakdown of Sri Lanka. I keep saying, "Muslims are a religious group, not an ethnic group," but people continue to reference them separately. I have asked if they are actually a different ethnic group, like maybe they immigrated from the middle east long ago, but no, they are Sri Lankans, thus technically Sinhalese, but due to their religious preference will forever be classified separately. They don't do this with Christians.] What happens to your happy multi-ethnic community when fighting breaks out? I guess only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I've signed up for every news listserv I could find (thanks Christina!) so that I know what is going on in this country. No word of this recent outbreak of fighting in the east. Plenty of information on the daily death count in the north. I've thought about keeping a total, because with these daily numbers I'm starting to disbelieve the official count of 70,000 since 1983. It seems like this is not possible when I receive numbers in the hundreds on some days. Human Rights Watch says that since fighting broke out again 20 months ago (after a 2002 ceasefire) the death toll and abductions have increased "dramatically."

Meanwhile, those of us living in the Colombo suburbs are blissfully ignorant of the fighting. I see soldiers all the time, sometimes hanging out on my small little street, but they don't bother me and I don't bother them. They are all very young and I've been told, mostly from poor families.

And the government has announced they will increase funding for the war by 20 percent next year. This country is in a economic downturn with 17 percent inflation, yet more taxes will be used to fund a never-ending war.

The U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka recently had this to say,

"The number of extrajudicial killings in Jaffna has risen even higher in recent months. Trials, convictions and jail terms for those found guilty would help demonstrate the government's intention to address the climate of impunity that is of concern to human rights defenders.''
Of course, the U.S. has very little standing in the world today in regards to human rights abuse in times of war. The Sri Lankan government, in fact, has modeled their war on ours...
“What is wrong with conducting military operations in order to liberate the Tamil people of the north and east from Prabhakaran (LTTE leader), the same way that the Americans wanted to liberate the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein?”
Meanwhile the U.N. High Commissioner was recently here to check on human rights abuses. I wonder why people in power think when they come to a country they will see reality. I mean, her visit was announced (invited in fact) and I'm sure she went to the areas of inspection in one of those white SUV's with the baby blue logo of the U.N. emblazoned on every side. Did she really expect that they would just take her to locations where civilians were killed or better yet, take her to the location where they are holding all the people randomly abducted in the past year? Anyway, she says she can tell there are problems and she wants to send in monitors, but the Sri Lankan government is steadfastly opposed to this. They will, however, allow the High Commission to increase their staff in Colombo to two. That's nice.

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