The recent decision by the Sri Lankan Government to allow a United Nations human rights team into the country represents a chink in the armour of denial and obfuscation that has frustrated attempts at an accurate assessment of the state of the country since the end of the civil war.
What does leak out amid the welter of official reports stating all is well is disturbing, with increasing evidence that the Sinhalese majority, led by militant Buddhist monks, is conducting a campaign against the minority Muslims who made up much of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgency which was finally crushed in 2009.
Reports by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations state that a mob led by 100 monks demolished a Muslim shrine in Anuradhapura on the grounds that it had been built on land given to the Sinhalese 2000 years ago. This breathtaking timescale suggests the claim is based on ancient religious texts which, if taken literally, would grant the entire island to the Sinhalese, leaving no place for any religious minorities.
The popular conception of Buddhism as being a gentle religion that espouses non-violence has never been the case in Sri Lanka where religious militancy in defence of the realm goes back to the second century BC when, legend has it, an army of 500 monks, led by a prince with a Buddha-blessed spear, defeated Tamil invaders.
More recently the Buddhist hierarchy was the driving force in the 25-year civil war, giving its blessing to the final offensive in May 2009. This wiped out the LTTE along with thousands of civilians that the Tigers cynically put into the firing line in the hope that a horrified international community would force the Government to call off the attack.
In the three years since, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has stonewalled attempts to find out exactly what happened in those last bloody days as the LTTE-held territory shrunk to a tiny strip of land around the Nandikadel Lagoon. For some time Rajapaksa denied that any civilians had died in the fighting but later reports amended this to around 2000 and then 8000. This flew in the face of eye-witness accounts by doctors treating the wounded who reported mass deaths caused by heavy shelling and indiscriminate all-out attacks by Government forces.
I was present at a Canberra seminar given by author and former United Nations spokesman Gordon Weiss who wrote in his book The Cage that he believed the toll was 30,000. Weiss was virtually shouted down by an audience stacked with local Sinhalese. However, A UN panel established by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last year put the figure at 40,000, almost all resulting from shelling by Government forces.
Since the enforced peace the Government in Colombo has talked a great deal about reconciliation with very little action to back the words. Resettlement of the 300,000 Tamils displaced by the war has been slow and chaotic – and in some cases downright dangerous. For instance, a conference organised by the Sri Lankan Women's Agenda for Peace, Security and Development was told that when refugees were finally allowed to return to their home areas where the last battles of the war were fought they found almost all their buildings destroyed, their fields and gardens returned to jungle, and mines and other unexploded ordnance littered about.
Even so they may be the lucky ones, for at least they still have their land. The International Crisis Group (ICG) says the Sri Lankan military has seized sites within Tamil areas to set up bases and has established what can only be described as a ruthless form of martial law.
"When challenged by public protest, the military has shown itself willing to physically attack demonstrators and is credibly accused of involvement in enforced disappearances and other extrajudicial punishments," the ICG says.
On top of this, Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of the president, is on record as saying the Tamils cannot claim any part of Sri Lanka as their exclusive domain and there are already examples of Sinhalese settlers, under military protection, moving in to deserted Tamil areas and setting up Buddhist temples on the ruins of Hindu shrines destroyed in the fighting, something the ICG pointed out led to the ruinous civil war in the first place and was a "recipe for renewed conflict" in the future.
The decision to allow the UN team into the country is a step forward, especially given the government's previous position that it, rather than any international body, would define and investigate human rights violations. Indeed it has played a leading role in whipping up public antagonism to international criticisms, describing them as attempts to interfere with Sri Lanka's sovereignty. However, last month it did announce an action plan based on the report of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission which, while putting most of the blame for civilian casualties at the door of the LTTE, did at least concede that civilians had died in considerable numbers.
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