Public anger breaks out over food siege

[TamilNet, Monday, 07 July 1997, 23:59 GMT]
As the Sri Lankan government's restriction on food and medicine into the Vanni causes untold suffering in the Vanni, frustration is building within the Tamil populace. A series of mass demonstrations are taking place in the area. Aid workers are also condemning the deliberate starvation of a people and government interference in their work.

Last Tuesday, thousands of Tamil people converged at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Mannar district, to protest against the restriction of food and medicine into the Vanni. Representatives of the protesters handed over a letter to the UNHCR, addressed to the Sri Lankan president, appealing for an end to the deliberate starvation.

The residents of Mannar have been told that they should cross into army occupied territory to receive any food or medicine. Aid will not be allowed into areas of Mannar district that are not occupied by the army. The army has a limited presence in the region - on Mannar island and on a small strip on the mainland linked to army occupied Vavuniya by an army-held road. Despite having a presence in the area, the UNHCR can do little to stop the Sri Lankan army from using food as a weapon.

On Friday, large numbers of Tamil protested in Puthukudiyiruppu against the ongoing food siege, forming a human chain by holding hands. In reality, it is unlikely these demonstrations will make an international impact due to the Sri Lankan government's 2-year old ban on the press from visiting the area.

However, for many of these people, this is the only available form of protest. One protester, somewhat optimistically said "Perhaps the international governments will see us through their satellite pictures."

Friday also saw complaints by the international aid agencies against the government's tactics. At a meeting held in the Mullaitivu district, representatives of aid agencies condemned the Sri Lankan government for deliberately restricting food supplies. Representatives of the UNHCR and the ICRC also attended the meeting.

Despite protests by their staff, the international aid agencies are unable to apply pressure on the Sri Lankan government. In the first instance, most of the Tamils who have fled ahead of the Sri Lankan army are still on the island. Hence they are technically not 'refugees,' but 'displaced persons.' This technicality ensures that, no matter how desperate the situation is, the UNHCR and its parent organisation, the United Nations, cannot intervene.

In 1995, during the Sri Lankan assault on Jaffna, when nearly half a million Tamils fled the city, the United Nations chief, Mr. Boutros Boutros-Gali appealed to the Sri Lankan government to allow the UN to assist the refugees who were suffering in torrential rain in the open. The Sri Lankan government contemptuously dismissed the offer, warning the UN not to interfere in the island's 'internal affairs.'

All agencies are only allowed to operate on the island at the government's discretion. They work under difficult circumstances: the Sri Lankan government restricts the number of visas it issues to aid agencies and regularly disrupts their activities with increasing levels of bureaucracy.

For example, a UNHCR food convoy may leave Colombo once the Ministry of Defence issues a permit. However, once it arrives at the checkpoint to cross into area not occupied by the army, a local army officer will reject the permit on some technicality. The entire convoy will need to return to Colombo for the paperwork to be reissued.

Senior aid agency staff have to publicly 'show their support' for the government in exchange for their organisations being allowed to function in the North and East. This effectively prevents them from highlighting the situation internationally.

One aid agency official told us from one of their European offices, on condition of anonymity, that though their HQ is aware of the severity of the situation, they are not allowed to discuss it with the press or to publicise it in any way. The Sri Lankan government will simply shut down the local offices of any organisation that dares to speak out abroad.

When the Sri Lankan military bombed a large church at Navaly in the Jaffna peninsula in 1995, killing at least 120 Tamil civilians (65 instantly), the Red Cross issued a press statement. The Sri Lankan Foreign minister summoned the ICRC and criticised it for publicising the incident at 'such a crucial time.' Sri Lanka was embarking on a massive military campaign in the Jaffna peninsula at the time.

When the Sri Lankan Air Force massacred 45 Tamil school children at Nagerkovil in September 1995, Medicins Sans Frontier protested (its staff tended to the wounded). MSF was also warned not to 'get involved in politics.'

The LTTE highlighted the protests in its press releases, issued from its London office. We asked one Tamil Tiger officer what he thought of the local Tamil populace appealing to the Sri Lankan government for food. He said "Some of them think that Chandrika actually gives a damn. When nothing happens, they will realise that we are the only answer."

Indeed, some of the Tamil residents believe that they have been forgotten by the international community. Many are becoming increasingly convinced that they are being deliberately ignored. The result is more volunteers for the LTTE ranks.

International journalists are not allowed into any part of the island where the conflict is taking place. Despite the concern of many countries, the Sri Lankan government does not intend to lift the ban on the press.

The LTTE intensified its campaign for independence following the island wide pogrom against Tamils in July 1983. Over 50,000 Tamil civilians have been killed in the government's attempts to crush the Tamil struggle. In the 1977 elections, the Tamil people of the island voted overwhelmingly for parties supporting independence from Sri Lanka.


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