According to this article in the Times of London, yes, it is time to start boycotting Sri Lanka. In a series of articles focussing on Sri Lanka, the Times has alleged that the Sri Lankan government has not taken adequate steps for the welfare of Tamils displaced by the civil war. In what can only be termed a very serious allegation, it is said that 1400 civilians die every week at Manik Farms, the largest of various welfare villages set up to house Tamil civilians displaced from the recent war theatres. Even if the figure of ‘1400’ is shown to be an exaggeration, it is very, very likely that a large number of civilians are dying every day for want of medicines, food and on account of the unsanitary conditions prevailing in this particular ‘welfare village’ and others like it.
When set up, the Sri Lankan government had easily brushed aside claims that the welfare villages are actually concentration camps for Tamil civilians. Its claim that it needed to screen the civilians for the Tigers was could not be rejected outright, though international concern for the civilians held there was always high. There were reports of how Sri Lankan officials did their best to improvise and feed the detainees in the face of scarcity of everywhere. However, it’s been almost two months since the LTTE Suprémo Prabhakaran was killed and the government’s aura of righteousness is fading away and fast.
The Sri Lankan government has announced that it will increase the strength of its already bloated army by 50%, making it 300,000 strong. It has also asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to scale down its activities in Sri Lanka. The ICRC has been forced to comply. This is not a positive step.
For one, as this BBC report says, the Red Cross is the only international organisation with a presence in Sri Lanka and if it were to cut back its staff strength considerably, it will drastically curtail independent monitoring of various government run ‘welfare camps’.
More importantly, since Sri Lanka obviously does not have the resources needed to maintain the inmates of the ‘welfare villages’ with even basic amenities, the demand that the Red Cross ought to scale down its activities can only be described as callous and cruel.
It is not only inside the welfare villages that the Sri Lankan government is being found wanting. This article (again from The Times) talks of how the Sri Lankan government is trying to coerce Tamil speaking Muslims, who were forced by the LTTE to leave their homes in Jaffna 18 years ago, to return to their villages immediately. Apparently their rations have been cut drastically so that they have no choice, but to return to Jaffna where they may be targeted by the remnants of the LTTE.
Recently I happened to read Michael Ondaatje’s classic ‘Anil’s Ghost.’ I am an Ondaatje fan, but I hadn’t read this novel till last week, though it is supposed to be one of Ondaatje’s best, if not the best. Anil’s Ghost is the story of Anil Tissera, a Sinhalese girl who goes abroad when very young, studies medicine at Guy’s hospital in London, and later trains as a forensic anthropologist in the US. Anil returns to Sri Lanka after an absence of 15 years in order to carry out an investigation on behalf of a UN agency into the numerous extra-judicial murders taking place in the emerald island. Anil stumbles into ‘Sailor’s skeleton and she struggles to discover his identity and prove that he was picked up by the government’s men and ‘disappeared.’
Ondaatje manages to capture the mental state of a country at war, where everyone looks across his or her shoulder, where fear stalks the land, where the life of a man who speaks out against the government is worth nothing. There are Tamil rebels and JVP fighters in Ondaatje’s book, and of course government forces who carry out extra-judicial killings. Somehow the men doing the government’s dirty work appear to be much more nasty and cruel than both groups of rebels. It is a disturbing picture, one that will not easily go away from any reader’s mind. I am sure that Ondaatje has accurately captured the state of Sri Lanka, which in all probability exists even now.
Should the international community boycott Sri Lanka as advocated by the Times?
No, I don’t think so. Not yet anyway. The Sri Lankan government is not the only government to win a war and be unprepared for the ensuing peace. The United States and its allies were caught with their pants down in Iraq after they had comprehensively defeated Saddam’s forces. However, the United States and the rest of the coalition did mobilise resources and make an effort to make up for their lapse, though it hasn’t been a resounding success. The Sri Lankan government has only a fraction of the resources that the United States has and ought to be given a bit more time to prove its credentials. However, if matters don’t improve for the hapless people struck in the welfare camps very soon, Sri Lanka may soon find itself at the wrong end of international scorn and anger.
The only reason why the Sri Lankan government received so much support in its fight against the LTTE was because the LTTE was so much nastier than the Sri Lankan government, which is, all said and done, a democratically elected government. So many unpardonable unpardonable crimes were committed by the government’s men during the civil war, acts like Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder and the killings of so many journalists and activists. The international community (I include myself in this community) overlooked all that. Now that the LTTE is no more, the Sri Lankan government will find that the universe is no longer so tolerant.