Tamils' hunger intensifies as govt sharpens food weapon

Place: Vanni | Date: 19970525

Ignoring the ICRC's appeals Sri Lanka's Sinhala-dominated government has strengthened its food siege of the Vanni region.

The area's Tamil inhabitants are now stranded without food reserves. Sri Lanka's latest military operation has provided a convenient excuse for the government to strangle the northeast Tamil civilian population more tightly. Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and parts of Vavuniya are being starved in what is a conscious effort to physically wear down the people.

This, the military hopes, will facilitate its advance. Even ICRC's offer to carry food to civilians through the relatively safe Vavinya-Mannar road has been outright rejected, confirming that Sri Lanka has ulterior motives. The government had of course earlier boasted the road was now clear for civilian traffic and that trade along it was booming. There should be no reason, therefore, for it to block food supplies along it, especially in the face of the ICRC's urgent appeals. The government's food-denying measures, indeed, unambiguously contravene the humanitarian law of armed conflict since civilians are the intended targets. The tactic also underscores the depth of anti-Tamil racism pervading the Sinhala military forces and government. A state willing to use food as a weapon against Tamil civilians cannot be entrusted to "liberate" them, though perversely this has become Sri Lanka's rallying cry and focal point for enticing foreign support.


THOUSANDS ARE STARVING - NGOs ACKNOWLEDGE THE CRISIS

UNHCR, ICRC, OXFAM, CARE and MSF agreed unanimously in a meeting last Thursday that the Tamil refugee crisis unfolding in northeast Sri Lanka is spiralling out of control. They also acknowledged not enough was being done to care for the starving Tamil families displaced by successive Sri Lankan military operations. The government's latest offensive meanwhile continues creating further displacements even though the government knows the refugee crisis has already exceeded manageable proportions. Over half a million Tamils are homeless and hungry, the vast majority sprawled along roads relying on trees for shelter. Uprooted and disorientated, these people have no means of supporting themselves and are dependent on food coming from outside the Vanni. It is this dependency which the government is exploiting by blocking food-transit to the entire region. The Confederation of Non-Governmental Organisations - a consortium of local NGOs in Vanni - urgently appealed to the international NGOs to help feed the escalating starving Tamil population But it is technically impossible to feed them as long as Sri Lanka persists with its food-siege. It is this which is hampering the relief efforts of all the Vanni-based NGOs. As a result, literally thousands of people do not know where their next meal is coming from. The Sri Lankan government, a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, is failing to uphold its international duty as defined by the humanitarian law of armed conflict - i.e., to protect Tamil civilians from the effects of its military operations. On the contrary, by cutting all food-links to Vanni Sri Lanka has demonstrated that crippling civilians is becoming more and more integral to its overall strategy. The food-siege signifies a consciously more ruthless approach towards Tamil civilians - a shift long advocated by Sinhala military hardliners. The food-siege is a 'tester' to gauge international reaction to a more intense onslaught against the civilian population.


VANNI FOOD-SIEGE OPENLY CONDEMNED BY UNHCR The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has roundly condemned Sri Lanka's ongoing food siege on Tamils in Vanni. The organisation's representative said to an anxious meeting of NGOs in Vanni on Monday that the Sri Lankan government is wilfully and knowingly stopping food and medicine reaching the disaster-stricken Vanni region. Huge numbers of displaced Tamils, he observed, are languishing in Vanni without any food in the wake of Sri Lanka's latest military drive. At such a critical time while people hover on the edge of starvation the government was clearly preoccupied with pomp and ceremony, he concluded. Every single NGO present - both local and international - endorsed his assessment. Colombo-based journalists have underplayed this unfolding human tragedy at every turn, dismissing the Vanni food-siege as though it were a piece of propaganda. In the light of UNHCR's admission of the scale of the crisis, this gives an indication of the depth of anti-Tamil feeling even among Sri Lanka's journalistic community. With such scant regard shown by the country's media to Tamils as thousands contemplate starvation, one can without trouble imagine how Sinhala troops must view and treat the Tamil population as they occupy and destroy their ancient homeland.