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Posted on 5 February 2009 at 0:00 GMT

Sri Lanka: Thousands trapped in war zone

Suppression of free speech and democratic rights

FACING STARVATION and death, between 250,000 and 400,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone - a small area in the north of Sri Lanka. They have been in this nightmare situation since early January, when the Sri Lankan military moved into Kilinochchi - the base of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE have been fighting for a separate homeland for over 30 years.

Senan, Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)

Recently the LTTE have suffered a massive military setback in the face of the Sri Lankan government's military offensive. Before the military moved into Kilinochchi and into Mullaithivu town, the LTTE had evacuated the Tamil population to the areas where they maintain control.

The LTTE now only controls small parts of Mullaithivu, a northern district surrounded by the Sri Lankan military. There are no housing or food facilities in this area. Relief agencies and the media are banned from the war zone by the government.

Last week the Sri Lankan government announced a very small safety zone near Mullaithivu. Some relief agencies and media personnel are allowed in but only under military escort. This safety zone, however, does not have sufficient shelter, medicine and food to accommodate the hundreds of thousands trapped in this hell.

Mullaithivu is one of the poorest regions in the country. As part of the war on the LTTE, this area has been suffering under a government blockade for months. In the last two weeks this situation has worsened. There have been no reports of food supplies reaching these people. Thousands are believed to be starving to death, including thousands of children.

This situation is described by the relief agencies as a "silent tsunami". Not only are the fleeing people's conditions worsening but they are also under fire from the Sri Lankan military. Even in the safety zone there are reports of heavy shelling. On 1 February nine people at a hospital in the war zone were killed after it took direct hits.

There are various reports of hundreds and even thousands of deaths, but, due to the government's information blackout, it is impossible to know how many have died.

Media suppression

The government has made no attempt whatsoever to protect the trapped people. Many may not even be aware of the safety zone, but it serves as a propaganda point for the government.

Meanwhile, disgusting patriotic rhetoric and a ruthless and racist attitude is displayed by Mahinda Rajapakse, the current Sri Lankan president, and his ruling family and friends. Much of this goes unchallenged. Journalists and other media personnel are under the constant threat of physical attacks by suspected government-sponsored thugs.

With the brutal murder of Lasantha Wickmeratunge, one of the country's most respected journalists, it seems that the ruling class intend to send a message that those who speak out about government corruption or the government's persecution of Tamils and others and its military assaults, will face repression or even death.

Even the German ambassador to Sri Lanka was called before the government and criticised after speaking out against media suppression at Lasantha's funeral. Since Lasantha's death another editor has been stabbed and numerous other attacks on media personnel have taken place.

As the appalling humanitarian crisis unfolds in the north of Sri Lanka, the government leaders are sponsoring celebrations in the south. The media have been urged to produce patriotic articles and reports.

A government-set deadline for the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the combat zone expired on 31 January, after which the military said it would launch fresh operations to 'liberate' the civilians by force.

The LTTE did not comply with the request to move the civilians to the safety zone. This marks a change from previous conflicts when people have been able to move into areas controlled by the government army as they advanced.

The LTTE has not made any attempt to create a safety zone in the area they control. Instead they are moving people further back into areas where there are no facilities - water, food, medicine or shelter.

United struggle

The United Socialist Party (USP), the Sri Lankan section of the Committee for a Workers' International, has helped to create a broad opposition called the 'Freedom Platform' which is organising a major protest on 4 February - Independence Day. It is also calling for solidarity protests internationally. Its main slogans are: Freedom to live, Freedom of expression - in the media and in politics, No to war, No to killings and kidnappings.

Despite the government's attempts to silence any kind of opposition to its war drive and racist chauvinism, the USP is continuing its campaigning against the government. Not only against the offensive on the population in the north but also against the suppression of free speech and democratic rights in the south.

It urges a united struggle of Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim workers and poor throughout the island to get rid of the rotten regime of Rajapakse. It stands firmly for the right of Tamil-speaking people to self-determination and for a socialist alternative to capitalism and imperialism.

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