The latest military surge by the Sri Lankan government has left the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) surrounded in the
north of the country. 150,000 civilians are also trapped. Journalists have been barred from the region. Sunanda Deshapriya is
one of those journalists.
Civilians trapped as humanitarian crisis looms
SHARMINI PERIES, JOURNALIST, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. The latest military surge of the Sri Lankan government has left the LTTE, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, encircled and besieged in a 30 kilometer square in the northeast of Sri Lanka. A hundred and fifty thousand civilians are trapped between government forces and Tamil rebels in the northeast, amounting to a humanitarian crisis. Some estimate 40 people are being killed every single day. No international agencies or humanitarian missions are being allowed into the area. The journalists that are normally covering this conflict has been threatened and pushed out of the country. A number of them have exiled themselves, including Sunanda Deshapriya. He joins us today from Geneva. Sunanda, you’ve been covering this conflict since 1983, when the conflict began. Yet in this surge, the government of Sri Lanka is justifying this war as a war on terror. Is that a correct typification?
SUNANDA DESHAPRIYA, JOURNALIST: Well, “war on terror” has differing interpretations according to the situation. There is, of course, terrorism coming from LTTE also. At the same time, this is mainly a sort of political problem, and all governments have to try to find out a political solution, as well as a regular solution. But the difference with this government is this government is singlemindedly interested in only military option, thinking that this is a military issue, this is a terrorist issue, and it has to have a military option. That’s the difference between previous governments and this government.
PERIES: Sunanda, there are a number of journalists who have exiled themselves because of security reasons, mainly that they have been receiving threats, including yourself. Can you tell us more about that?
DESHAPRIYA: The last three years has been unprecedented in media suppression in Sri Lanka. The report card, if you look at it, it’s very grim. We have had 20 journalists and media workers killed in the last three years. More than 50 journalists have left the country in self-exile. And more than 20 journalists have been arrested, have been in detention from three months to one year, and some of them are still in detention. And hundreds of journalists have been intimidated. Newspaper offices have been threatened, sometimes set on fire, sometimes closed by force. We all know, January 8, Lasantha Wickrematunge, Sunday Leader editor, was killed. After his death 35 journalists left the country.
PERIES: Including yourself, Sunanda. You yourself had to leave the country because of threats that you received.
DESHAPRIYA: Yes, I left the country to India for some time, because after Lasantha, everyone thought that me being a media activist—and we have been campaigning for press freedom last three years, we have been in the forefront of defending hman democratic rights and press freedom in the country. So we are getting so many threats. We have been named and shamed by government official Web sites as traitors.
PERIES: Sunanda, the international community is calling for a truce in order to assist the people that are caught up in this conflict, particularly the civilian population, yet the government is refusing a truce. They’re saying that whenever there’s a truce, both parties part, then there is negotiations, discussions about peace, and then, a few months later, fighting resumes. So can you comment on that? Why is the government refusing to take a pause right now?
DESHAPRIYA: There are two reasons for this, because this time this support for truce is coming mainly on humanitarian grounds, not on political grounds. Earlier, call for peace negotiations came from to find out a political solution to the devolution of power to the North and East provinces. But this time, as we all know that more than 150,000 people are trapped in these areas. Today [inaudible] last hospital was closed down.
PERIES: Sunanda, the International Committee of the Red Cross is claiming there’s 150,000-plus civilians trapped between the LTTE and the government forces. What’s happening there?
DESHAPRIYA: What happened, actually, when the government forces advanced to the north and the people—also, LTTE organized people also to retreat with them, and probably around 400,000 people or more than that, and slowly retreated to the LTTE-held areas. And that’s how we have, you know, 150,000 people trapped in there. They’re from jungle areas, but they’re from built-up areas also. And this area, what has happened, now government forces are inside present area for, like, more than a month, but they are inching forward because there have been heavy civilian casualties and resistance from the Tigers also. Under this situation, because last month there has not been enough medical supplies up to these areas. It’s only the ICRC, through the sea, send food and take the patients back to government-controlled areas. In this situation, the international community has been asking government to negotiate with the LTTE to temporarily truce to evacuate the people. But LTTE position has been that government should first ask from the people or whether they want to leave these areas, whether they want to live in these areas. LTTE actually does not like that they are evacuating these peoples, because then they will not have the human shield for themselves. On the other hand, government has not shown human concern to stop the war and for giving these people some time to get out of these areas. And both sides at this time are looking at only achieving their military objectives.
PERIES: What are those military objectives? What do you think the government wants to achieve in this search?
DESHAPRIYA: This government came to power on the promise that they will defeat the LTTE military and unify the country. So government wants to capture all land in the Northern Province, bring the whole land under the military control, and say that they have unified the country.
PERIES: Essentially, they want to bring down the LTTE completely.
DESHAPRIYA: Well, this is a conventional war, what is coming to an end. According to the general Sarath Fonseka, commander of the Sri Lankan Army; according to him, he said on record that there will be at least 1,000 areas fighting for 10 years, because LTTE has diaspora support, as well as some support from the people. And for the guerrilla, well, we don’t know how far guerrilla force–guerrilla struggle–be stronger. But definitely all military experts said this is only the first phase, with two phases of the war.
PERIES: Sunanda, what do we know about what is happening to the civilians trapped there?
DESHAPRIYA: Yeah, it’s clearly a human tragedy at unprecedented levels. And in Sri Lanka, I think, we never had a man-made tragedy like this in the recent history. At least, according to all records—we have reliable records coming from church sources and medical sources and some international sources—40 to 50, 60 people die every day, and children, women, and men are dying there because of the fighting. And these people does not have enough to eat. Today it was reported that doctors are using bedsheets as bandages because they don’t have any bandage, and there’s no painkillers for people who are caught between the war, both sides, and no medical supplies, and no shelters for people. And there was a flood two weeks ago; there was heavy rain, and there was a flood two weeks ago. Looks like government has stopped shelling and using heavy artillery now, but still the civilian casualties are taking place in unprecedented levels in these areas. The thing is that actually the problem is that there is no discussion in the country about this because there’s no independent reports coming from these areas. No journalists are allowed; no international organization is allowed. What we get is from partial reports from both sides, whatever side. So that’s one reason that there’s no informed discussion in the country, as well as in the world.
PERIES: Sunanda, you have the unique opportunity of presenting to the human rights council and alerting the international community. What are you saying to them?
DESHAPRIYA: I’ve been telling them that government and LTTE both has to stop fighting, at least for a time, and it’s a humanitarian tragedy, and we should look at the people’s issues and how to get these people, give them enough supplies, and send them food, send them medical supplies, and treat these as citizens of our own country, not as combatants, not as part of the Tigers, part of the LTTE. That’s what has been happening, in fact. It’s because government has been trying to capture the area, a very small area. But they have been attacking these areas, and even safe zone has—there have been deaths in safe zone as well. So, in short, what we are saying: that Sri Lankan government has to accept international humanitarian law and act according to the international humanitarian law.
PERIES: Are you calling on the LTTE to also take care of the civilians that is under their control?
DESHAPRIYA: The LTTE doesn’t want these people to get out of these areas. That’s their official position. And we have not elected them. We always ask elected governments to be responsible. LTTE is a guerrilla organization; it’s not elected by us, although we always call upon LTTE to respect these people and not to use these people as human shield. But LTTE, up to now, has not listened to that. The government has more responsibility towards its citizens and say that, you know, instead of trying to capture these areas. Government probably has their military aims and I’m not going to contest that government should capture these areas or not. But I think government should prioritize their issues and look at the issue of humanitarian tragedy and see how these people can be helped to get out of these areas or how these people can be fed and given medical supplies until we find a solution, or kind of at least an agreement that everyone can agree with.
PERIES: Okay, Sunanda. Thank you so much for joining us, and good luck with your advocacy at the UN human rights council. And we hope you join us again very soon.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.