Tamils are forced out at gunpoint amid claims of ethnic cleansing

By Jeremy Page, The Times
June 8, 2007
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The Sri Lankan Government was accused yesterday of ethnic cleansing after armed police stormed workers’ hostels in the capital, Colombo, during the night and forced hundreds of ethnic Tamils to leave town.

Police hustled 376 Tamils on to buses at gunpoint before dawn and drove them back to their villages in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, where Tamil Tiger rebels are fighting for an independent homeland.

One of those deported told a local radio station that the police woke them at 3.45am and did not let them use the lavatory or change out of their nightclothes.
Security officials said that the operation was part of a crackdown on the Tigers, who, they say, have infiltrated Colombo and are using workers’ hostels as bases for attacks.

Human rights groups, Tamil politicians and many ordinary Tamils accused the Government of resorting to ethnic cleansing in the capital for the first time in its 24-year conflict with the Tigers.

“This is a very serious violation of human rights,” Dharmalingam Sitharthan, a Tamil political leader, told The Times. “Every citizen of this country can choose his own residence, but even this is now being denied. They used to round people up, question them and release them, but this is new.”

Sirithunga Jayasuriya, chairman of the Civil Monitoring Committee, said: “This is like ethnic cleansing and we strongly condemn it.”

For others the operation conjured memories of antiTamil riots in Colombo in 1983, which left at least 1,000 Tamils dead and marked the start of full-scale hostilities between the Government and the Tigers. In another illustration of the risks Tamils face in Colombo, two Tamil Red Cross workers from eastern Sri Lanka were abducted and shot dead last week by men claiming to be plainclothes police officers.

Analysts said that the deportations marked a new low in the campaign against the Tigers, who want a homeland for Tamils to protect them from discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.

The two sides signed a truce, brokered by Norway in 2002 but that began to unravel in December 2005, and since then at least 5,000 civilians and fighters have been killed on both sides.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the fighting in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, with many Tamils heading to Colombo, where they stay, typically, in crowded hostels on the outskirts.

Tamil leaders and human rights groups say that most come to try to find work or to get a passport to work abroad or win political asylum overseas. Last week Victor Perera, the inspector-general of police, declared that such people were potential terrorists and a threat to national security.
“Those who are loitering in Colombo will be sent home. We will give them transport,” he said. “We are doing this to protect the people and because of a threat to national security.”

A national security spokesman said that the police operation was prompted by two alleged Tiger bomb attacks that killed nine people and wounded forty-four in and around Colombo last month.

“Police searched these hostels and found people without ID cards and with no reason to stay in Colombo. Those people must go back to their villages and return with ID,” he said. “This is not ethnic cleansing as even Sinhalese and Muslims were included.”

Human rights activists said that the operation was likely to fuel resentment of the Government and support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). “Whether legal or illegal, this kind of action is going to create a situation where Tamils feel marginalised and look to the LTTE for help,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said.