The atrocities committed against the Tamil during the three-decade-long civil war in Sri Lanka amounted to ethnic cleansing and even today a huge drive is underway to change the demography of the Tamil-dominated region, noted photographer and former UN staffer Benjamin Dix said today. Dix worked as communication manager for the United Nations in Sri Lanka and spent four years (from 2004-2008) to bring the human rights abuses in the island nation to a wider audience. He was based in LTTE-controlled Vanni in the northern region. “The crimes in Sri Lanka were horrific from both sides. The Sri Lankan Army is culpable of war crimes, but the Tamil leadership also failed the people in the last decade of the civil war,” the noted photographer told PTI in an interview at the Jaipur Literature Festival here. “The Sri Lankan Army does not believe that they committed atrocities. It is a propaganda that they liberated Tamils from the Tamil leadership. It was not a liberation, but destruction of the Tamil community,” he said. The noted photographer has co-authored with Lindsay Pollock the graphic novel titled ‘The Vanni’ that deals with the fortunes of a fictional Tamil family through war, displacement and its search for asylum.
Dix said the accusations levelled against the Lankan Army of committing genocide were a “very fair” assessment. “It is very fair to say that the Army committed genocide. The atrocities in Sri Lanka were definitely towards ethnic cleansing,” he asserted. The former United Nations staffer alleged that the then Mahinda Rajapaksa regime did not want Tamils in Sri Lanka and went after them to have them removed from the nation. “The atrocities continue in terms of removing the Tamil history, or changing names or allowing the Lankan Army to run hotels and tourism in the north. There is still a sense of victory over the Tamils in the north,” Dix said. “There is still a huge drive to change the demography of north Sri Lanka, but I find the atmosphere reasonably relaxed today than what it was in the past,” he said. The photographer also lamented that the Tamil refugees were hardly receiving the media attention they deserved and that the “sexy story” of Syrian refugees was hogging all the limelight.
Dix said it was wrong to label Syrian refugees as “extraordinary people” as they are often described in the mainstream media. “Syrian refugees are just normal people. They are not special because they are fleeing a civil war. Everyone will flee at the time of war. So Syrians are no different, they are just like us,” he said. Sri Lanka has faced the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) ire for alleged human rights abuses during the last phase of the three-decade-long conflict. The country’s human rights record, particularly over the impunity enjoyed by law enforcement officers, has been the subject of international condemnation.
The UNHRC has demanded accountability mechanisms to probe the rights abuses blamed on both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Lankan government forces. Sri Lanka is averse to setting up of a hybrid court with local and foreign judges to investigate the alleged war crimes committed by the government troops and the LTTE in the last phase of the conflict which ended in 2009. According to the government figures, around 20,000 people have gone missing in the island nation due to various conflicts. The LTTE, which led the war for a separate Tamil homeland, was finally crushed by the Lankan military in 2009 with the death of its supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.