Minority Rights Group International has just issued a report which repeats a lot of the unsubstantiated critiques of the Sri Lankan state which we have heard in recent months. The BBC asked me to respond to three specific points, which I did, though ultimately the story was not used. I think this shows maturity on the part of the BBC, to realize that this sort of extravagant generalization is not of great importance to the world at large.
However, since another source brought the report to my attention, I thought it would be useful to publicize this initial response. The attack follows a similar pattern to what we faced in the past, with a tendentious press release that makes horrendous generalizations – “Human rights violations in Sri Lanka continue unabated against ethnic Tamils and Muslims who fear an increasingly nationalist government” – which are not borne out at all by the report. I was reminded of the first such effusion I saw, when Human Rights Watch issued a release that talked about indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the East, whereas the report itself recorded only one such incident, when civilians had died, but as a result of mortar locating radar. The report recorded that the LTTE had been present with weapons in the refugee camp that was attacked, though it claimed, knowing better than the radar, that there were no heavy weapons around.
Like that report, this one comes at a significant time, when the Sri Lankan report on the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women is to be discussed in Geneva. Needless to say, the press release refers to militarization and sexual abuse in the same sentence, with no mention of the main problem of abuse we had to address, as noted in a plethora of reports by the agencies contracted by the UN in the field of protection, which was abuse by the displaced of the vulnerable amongst them.
The response below, sent in haste to Charles Haviland, the local BBC correspondent, deals with some of the main issues, though there are plenty of other areas in which inaccuracies and slipshod generalizations can be seen.
Thanks for sending me the Minority Rights Group Report. I am replying as best I may within your deadline of an hour, which included time for reading the whole Report, which was not easy. I thought that better however than trying to answer on the basis of the synopsis.
That was very general, and came out with a lot of the old formulae, but the Report itself was little better, with few specifics. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss the Report at length, and draw attention to several inaccuracies, but will confine myself here to the points you raised –
a) land in what it calls traditional Tamil and Muslim areas is being seized by the military/civilian authorities and used for things ranging from military camps to leisure facilities;
Some areas have also been acquired, notably in Sampur, for the joint project with the Indian government. These again are limited and, when land is acquired, alternatives will be provided – as indeed was offered to the IDPs from Sampur, many of whom accepted, though a few have refused in the hope that they can go back to their old homes.
The proportion of land being acquired is similar to that for development projects elsewhere, but as you know, all over the world, people protest – as with for instance the Highways etc in the South. Unfortunately, some commentators introduce an ethnic dimension here.
In one sense I am glad this report highlights the plight of the Muslims ethnically cleansed by the LTTE, over 20 years ago. No one cared about them for years, and the progress made in their case by this government is remarkable – including the houses we persuaded the World Bank to put up, which are mentioned with nothing of their history.
b) that some local women are being sexually harassed or abused by the military;
This canard has been produced several times over by activists who run protection rackets, ie they make money by making allegations. For several months I monitored the reports of all protection agencies sponsored by the UN, and found nothing of this sort, though general allegations were rife.
In this case they note one incident, in which there is an ongoing prosecution. Others refer to phone calls and, while anyone who receives them is upset, their source cannot be checked. Contrariwise, the help that is given is not mentioned – as when for instance soldiers were ordered to help single mothers with construction of homes – the report says no one bothers about this, but I know from my visits that much assistance was given. In one case this led to one of these ‘activists’ claiming this was appalling because it increased the dependence of the women on the military. You can’t win with people determined to make a case, which is why we always ask for evidence – and when I have met such activists, as for instance the one who claimed that people were being forced into marriage, with reference to the weddings of ex-cadres, we were able to refute her conclusively so that she ended up saying that she had heard such stories.
c) that there is a climate of fear prevalent among people with dissenting views in general and in Jaffna In particular where, the report says, academics and civil society figures feel they are being monitored and scrutinised.
My own visits to Jaffna, and discussions with civil society concerned with improvement, suggests healthy debate, though obviously those involved in protection rackets have to claim the opposite.
Hope this helps, Rajiva