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The insidious war games of the Sri Lankan government

COLOMBO (SE): The Sri Lankan government has announced it will take urgent measures to close the last of the camps that have housed more than 200,000 internally displaced persons, or refugees, from the war zones that covered much of the country during the 30-year civil war which ended officially in May 2009.

However, local priests say that the announcement does not amount to anything more than government propaganda. They say that the strong presence of the military in the former war zones means that it still wields the power and makes the decisions.

“The north and the east continue to be under strict military control. We… should not allow the military to dictate the rules. Instead of the civil administration, the army is governing the north and the east provinces,” UCA News reported J. C. Waliamuna, a constitutional lawyer, as telling a seminar organised by the Christian Solidarity Movement on September 26.

Father Nandana Manatunga, the director of the Human Rights Office in Kandy, told a meeting of the Asian Centre for the Progress of Peoples on September 16 that one of the biggest problems in his area is rape. “At least five rape cases are reported every day,” he said, “and that is just the reported cases.”

Father Manatunga explained that is also part of the problem of militarisation, as rape has always been a military tactic used by the Sri Lankan forces and was widely employed during the war.

He added that one of the projects that his human rights office is involved in is supporting rape victims. “I try to get people from the parish to attend the court hearings,” he said, “just to let the victim know they have support and also to educate local people in what is going on around them.”

The priest added that the non-functionality of the Sri Lankan legal and justice system complicates the matter, as it is difficult to get a conviction against government personnel.

This has become complicated since Colombo issued a Public Security Ordinance on September 8, which allows the deployment of the military to maintain law and order.

It has also made law enforcement officers immune to prosecution on the basis that having to protect themselves from accusations was hindering their work.

“As a result, what little headway that was being made in terms of holding police and military responsible for abuses of human rights has slipped backwards,” Father Manatunga explained. “Now they do not have to worry about what they do, as they can no longer be charged.”

He added that the government is in complete denial of what happened during the war and that it exaggerates the dangers of what it calls un-cleared areas, as the landmines it claims dot the countryside do not exist in anything like the numbers it purports.

“It is just an excuse to hold people captive,” he added. “The government still fears a further uprising. It is also holding back on issuing death certificates, as it does not want any official record of how many people really did die during the war. But this makes it impossible for many survivors to move on with their lives, as they cannot claim property or inherit.”

Waliamuna went on to say, “The army still has to be consulted if anyone in some areas wants to hold a meeting. Under democratic governance, people have the power to challenge government institutions… on excesses by police and military, but practically, people in those areas cannot exercise that liberty.”

He added that the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, talks one thing to the international community and another locally. “The government tells the world that the situation is normal in the country, while the president tells the country there are security threats all over the country that the police cannot handle.”

Another sticking point is the government condemnation of the United Nations Report on Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka during the civil war. “But it is spot on,” one priest told the Sunday Examiner. “We were there, we know what it was like and the United Nations report is substantially correct.”

However, he said that the government wants to produce its own watered down report to make itself look good in the eyes of the world.

AsiaNews reported on September 28 that Colombo is planning to re-house people who are still in concentration camps in purpose-built villages, but the non-government organisations that have supported them during their time of incarceration will not be allowed access to the new villages, in order to enhance government control of the people.

Local priests say this is just a ploy to tighten military control on the civilian population and Colombo also has a policy to buy off opinion making bodies in the country, like the Church.

“Over 100 priests from Colombo have had all-expense-paid trips to Rome,” he said, “so they become compliant,” one priest explained.

He added, “That is why you see leading Church figures in the capital parroting what the government is saying and praising what it is doing.”

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