Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Let trapped Tamil civilians go free, says aid worker

Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting for a separate Tamil state since 1983. Thousands of Tamil civilians remain inside their last remaining stronghold, where fresh water, food and medical facilities are in short supply.

By Christopher Adams: Pacific Media Centre

An aid worker who has returned to New Zealand after three years of relief work in embattled Sri Lanka has called on the Tamil rebels fighting desperately against government troops to let thousands of trapped civilians go free.

Ian McInnes worked in Sri Lanka as country director for US-based charity organisation World Concern.

He has now taken on the role of Sri Lanka spokesperson for Tear Fund, an aid organisation that has its New Zealand headquarters in Auckland.

Since January, Sri Lanka’s civil war has continued to rage as the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) have been pushed back by government forces to occupy only a tiny strip of land in the north-east of the island.

Previously, the LTTE controlled large swathes of the north and east of Sri Lanka.

The rebels have been fighting for a separate Tamil state since 1983.

Thousands of Tamil civilians remain inside the Tamil Tigers’ last remaining stronghold, where basic needs such as fresh water, food and medical facilities are in short supply.

McInnes has been worked near the frontlines of the conflict, coordinating World Concern’s efforts to assist refugees arriving from the rebel- held areas.

“We were working in hospitals immediately outside the warzone,” he says.

World Concern worked with 10,000 refugees, providing them with food, sanitary care and clothing, he says.

“Two-thirds of the refugees were injured from gunfire and shelling,” McInnes adds.

“The UN estimates 6500 people have been killed and 14,000 injured since January.”

'Shoot to kill'
After dealing with thousands of Tamil refugees emerging from the warzone, McInnes firmly believes the LTTE will “shoot to kill” people who try to leave their territory.

The most urgent need in the current situation is that the estimated 50,000 refugees are allowed to come out of the Tamil-held areas, says McInnes.

“The Tigers need to let them go, preferably before they get shelled.”

But McInnes does not think that the Sri Lankan Government has been blameless in the current conflict.

“There is an arrogance about the current government that needs to disappear,” he says.

“The Sri Lankan government needs to finish this thing as cautiously as it can if it doesn’t want to be responsible for a massacre.”

In a recent United Nations press release, top UN humanitarian official John Holmes accused the LTTE of holding Tamil civilians against their will. Holmes also expressed concern over reports that the Sri Lankan military’s shelling was continuing to put civilians at risk.

New Zealand Tamil Youth Association spokesperson Nirupa George doesn’t believe there have been any human rights violations committed by the LTTE during the recent fighting.

“The LTTE are the representatives of the Tamil people,” she says.

“We don’t believe there are human rights abuses being committed by the LTTE.”

Safety zone
George says members of Auckland’s Tamil community have been in contact with people inside the safety zone who have reported the situation there is dire.

She blames the government forces for the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding in northern Sri Lanka.

“There are no medical supplies, and only a makeshift hospital. Bodies are lying in the streets and there is no food.”

Whatever happens in the near future will not be the end of the war, she says.

“The solution is a separate state and self-determination for the Tamil people.”

Upali Manukulasuriya, a spokesperson for the anti-LTTE United Sri Lanka Association, believes the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government is nearing its end.

“The end of the war will be sooner rather than later,” says Manukulasuriya.

He says that when the conflict ends, the money saved from not fighting the war should be used to rebuild the country.

“I think the war gobbled a lot of time, money and energy. The north and east [areas previously occupied by the LTTE] need the most money invested.”

Manukulasuriya says the LTTE have been holding Tamil civilians against their will, and using them as a human shield during the current conflict.

'Human shield'
“At the moment the worst human rights abuse is using people as a human shield,” he says.

“They [the LTTE] are supposed to be the saviours of the Tamil people.”

Manukulasuriya adds that the LTTE should surrender now, and allow the civilians inside their territory to “escape”.

He says rebuilding the country will be “a huge task”.

But Manukulasuriya adds: “Sri Lanka will come together, there’s already a million Tamil people in Colombo. ”

Two weeks ago, members of Auckland’s Tamil community set up camp in Aotea Square to protest against the Sri Lankan government’s conduct during the recent conflict.

The demonstrators collected signatures for a petition they will send to Wellington, asking the New Zealand government to place pressure on the UN regarding the conflict, says protester Viji Ratnavel.

“It’s just not right – we are angered that the Sri Lankan government is not stopping the war,” says Ratnavel.

Another Tamil protester, Pathmanathan Kandiah, staged a hunger strike during the demonstration.

Viji Ratnavel says Kandiah finished his hunger strike when the protesters received news that Foreign Minister Murry McCully had issued a statement calling for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka.

Christopher Adams is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student on the AUT Asia-Pacific Journalism course. Photos of the Auckland Tamil protest and Neil McInnes are by Christopher Adams.

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