The Silence Surrounding Sri Lanka

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The Boston Globe

The Silence Surrounding Sri Lanka

NEW DELHI -  The horror that is unfolding in Sri Lanka becomes possible because of the silence that surrounds it. There is almost no reporting in the international press - or in the mainstream media in India, where I live - about what is happening. From the little information that is filtering through, it looks as though the Sri Lankan government is using the propaganda of "the war on terror" as a fig leaf to dismantle any semblance of democracy in the country and commit unspeakable crimes against the Tamil people.

The government is working on the principle that every Tamil is a terrorist unless he or she can prove otherwise, and civilian areas, hospitals, and shelters are being bombed and turned into a war zone. Reliable estimates put the number of civilians trapped at over 200,000. The Sri Lankan army is advancing, armed with tanks and aircraft.

Meanwhile, there are reports that several "welfare villages" have been established to house displaced Tamils in the Vavuniya and Mannar districts. The Daily Telegraph in London reports that these villages "will be compulsory holding centers for all civilians fleeing the fighting." Is this a euphemism for concentration camps?

Mangala Samaraweera, a former foreign minister of Sri Lanka, told The Daily Telegraph: "A few months ago the government started registering all Tamils in Colombo on the grounds that they could be a security threat, but this could be exploited for other purposes like the Nazis in the 1930s. They're basically going to label the whole civilian Tamil population as potential terrorists."

Given the government's stated objective of "wiping out" the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan, this malevolent collapse of civilians and "terrorists" does seem to signal that the government is on the verge of committing what could end up being genocide. According to a United Nations estimate, several thousand people have already been killed. Thousands more are critically wounded.

What we are witnessing - or, rather, what is happening in Sri Lanka and is being so effectively hidden from public scrutiny - is a brazen, openly racist war. The impunity with which the Sri Lankan government is able to commit these crimes unveils the deeply ingrained racist prejudice that is precisely what led to the marginalization and alienation of the Tamils of Sri Lanka in the first place. That racism has a long history, involving social ostracization, economic blockades, pogroms, and torture. The brutal nature of the decades-long civil war, which started as a peaceful, nonviolent protest, has its roots here.

Why the silence? In another interview, Mangala Samaraweera said, "A free media is virtually nonexistent in Sri Lanka today." He described death squads and "white van abductions," which have made society "freeze with fear." Voices of dissent have been abducted and assassinated. The International Federation of Journalists accuses the government of Sri Lanka of using a combination of anti-terrorism laws, disappearances, and assassinations to silence journalists.

There are unconfirmed reports that the Indian government is lending material and logistical support to the Sri Lankan government. If this is true, it is outrageous. What about the governments of other countries? Pakistan? China? What are they doing to help or harm the situation?

In Tamil Nadu, India, the war in Sri Lanka has fueled passions that have led to more than 10 people immolating themselves. The public anger and anguish - much of it genuine, but some of it obviously cynical political manipulation - has become an election issue.

It is extraordinary that this concern has not traveled to the rest of India. Why is there silence?

Given the scale of what is happening in Sri Lanka, the silence is inexcusable. More so because of the Indian government's long history of irresponsible dabbling in the conflict, first taking one side and then the other. Several of us who should have spoken out much earlier, have not done so, simply because of a lack of information about the war.

So while the killing continues, while tens of thousands of people are being barricaded into concentration camps, while more than 200,000 face starvation, and a genocide waits to happen, there is dead silence from this great country. It's a colossal humanitarian tragedy. The world must step in. Now. Before it's too late.

Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy was born in 1959 in Shillong, India. She studied architecture in New Delhi, where she now lives, and has worked as a film designer, actor, and screenplay writer in India. Her latest book, Listening to Grasshoppers: Fields Notes on Democracy, is a collection of recent essays. A tenth anniversary edition of her novel, The God of Small Things (Random House), for which she received the 1997 Booker Prize, was recently released. She is also the author of numerous nonfiction titles, including An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire.

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