As Sri Lanka struggles to recover after the end of fighting between Government and rebel Tamil fighters, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians are being kept in refugee camps in the north of the country. Journalist PAUL DOBBYN attended a presentation in Brisbane by Dominican Father Pan Jordan and Dr Brian Senewiratne to learn more about the situation
AN Anglican doctor with family connections to Sri Lanka’s ruling Singhalese class and a Catholic priest from the brutalised Tamils, both now living in Brisbane, recently joined forces to bring to light their country’s unfolding human rights tragedy.
Most of us attending a presentation given by the two men had read alarming comments by the likes of Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam of Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka – of a priest dying of exhaustion as he tried to minister to his people in the battle zone, and of the bishop’s futile efforts to head off the coming bloodbath by speaking with both the Sri Lankan president Mahinde Rajapakse and the opposing Tamil Tigers.
But the words Dr Brian Senewiratne and Dominican Father Pan Jordan shared and the images shown to a May 29 gathering organised by Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and Pax Christi Australia at Woolloongabba’s Justice Place left us all stunned and horrified.
Watching the presentation one could not help making comparisons with some of the reasons given for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Here was evidence of a tyranny unleashed on innocent civilians which possibly rivalled or even exceeded anything Saddam Hussein had ever perpetrated.
Yet the world’s great powers were standing by this time without lifting a finger.
Later we would discover some possible reasons for this inaction.
But first we saw images of women and children murdered in their homes; people running for their lives in refugee camps as rockets from Singhalese Israeli-sourced Kfir warplanes smashed fragile shelters and bodies to pieces; the hideous aftermath and its carnage; piles of bodies being burnt to hide evidence of the slaughter …
As Dr Senewiratne said: “I have sent these images to news agencies throughout the world to inform people of the genocide that is occurring in Sri Lanka.
“They are disturbing images … but that is what I want. I want you to be disturbed and horrified.
“If I have not done that I will not have succeeded in what I am trying to achieve.”
Fr Jordan, in an earlier conversation, had prepared me for what was to come.
“The doctor has got some terrible things to show with his talk,” the Sri Lankan-born priest said, mentioning that two of his cousins had been killed in the bombing in the conflict zone.
“More than 20,000 civilians are believed to have been killed and 40,000 injured on the final day of battle ending May 19 alone,” Fr Jordan said.
“I am haunted to witness this just as Australians are haunted to lose their own people such as recently in the Victorian bushfires.”
He had not long returned from Sri Lanka from a futile mission to secure the release of his brother-in-law from an army-controlled refugee camp, one of many of what Dr Senewiratne called “concentration camps”.
It is estimated about 500,000 people are being kept in these camps.
Fr Jordan stayed with the Oblate Fathers at Vavuniya in the country’s north but outside the war zone.
He said his brother-in-law and sister had become separated in the chaos surrounding the final battles between the Tamil Tigers and the Government forces.
“My sister pleaded with me to come to Sri Lanka and help with her husband’s release,” Fr Jordan said.
“I was there for March and April but could do nothing.
“I spoke with everyone I could, even army generals, but it was no use.”
Conditions at the camp where his brother-in-law was kept were terrible, Fr Jordan said.
“Many of us would bring plastic bags with food and try to throw them over the fence to those inside.
“The people we could see inside were very skinny and looked malnourished – there are stories of people dying of starvation.
“There were many, many families standing outside … so many the soldiers could do nothing to stop them.
“We were all trying to catch a glimpse of our relatives.
“However, we were not allowed any closer than 30 metres so we all had to shout to try to make ourselves heard.
“As a result no one could understand anything that was being said.
“And anyway how could anyone really have talked openly with soldiers standing everywhere with guns?”
Fr Jordan said what was going on in the camps was a type of “cultural genocide”.
“For example, women have to shower in the open,” he said.
“This is not acceptable in any culture but in the Tamil culture where chastity is given a lot of importance, this is very embarrassing.”
Fr Jordan explained that his Sri Lankan roots ran deep.
He was born there in 1954 and lived in the town of Adampan in the north with his parents, three sisters and two brothers.
He’d attended a De La Salle College and later left to study for the priesthood in Pakistan where he was ordained 22 years ago.
He returned to Sri Lanka as a priest but finally, after yet another civil war had broken out, left in 1991 for Australia.
Fr Jordan said there was much else to say about his people’s sufferings, but it was now time to attend Dr Senewiratne’s lecture in the Justice Place meeting room.
The doctor’s own story was extraordinary.
He’d grown up as a member of Sri Lanka’s ruling class, the powerful political clan that includes the Bandaranaike family.
But despite this, and having an impressive array of qualifications from universities including Cambridge and London, he’d chosen to campaign against the injustices being dealt to the Tamil people.
Dr Senewiratne’s talk “Sri Lanka Human Rights Abuse and the drift of a democracy to a Fascist Dictatorship” was accompanied by horrifying images of the conflict.
“I want to tell you what is in my heart,” he told those gathered.
“I hope you put it in your heart.”
Among points raised were:
- Sri Lanka is composed of about 74 per cent Singhalese and 18 per cent Tamils
- About half million Tamils are being kept in an open prison in the country’s north with detention without trial and many other abuses
- Economic embargoes have been imposed on traditional Tamil areas for more than two decades
- Many of the Buddhist monks are little more than thugs taking part in attacks on civilians and places of worship including Hindu temples and Christian churches (“A disgrace to a beautiful religion”, the doctor said.)
- The supply of food, medicine, fuel, electricity and other essential items is controlled by the military
- The Government is still refusing to allow humanitarian workers in to the north
- The army is being increased from 175,000 to 200,000.
Towards the end of his talk, Dr Senewiratne came to what he believed was a major reason behind the inaction of the world’s superpowers to help the stricken Tamils.
“It has been said on many occasions that whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia,” he said.
“Sri Lanka by its location is of enormous strategic value to the super powers.
“Trincomalee Harbour to the island’s north, which was an area of Tamil influence, is the fourth-largest harbour in the world.
“It is in the super powers’ interest to support the strongest side to keep influence in the region.”
The doctor’s closing words were chilling.
“There is more bloodshed to come,” he said.
“While the world sleeps the Singhalese-controlled Sri Lankan Government is busy with its final solution.
“Seventy-two hours ago, Government forces started targeting Tamil civilians in the capital Colombo … just like the holocaust unleashed in 1983.”